Opponents of a proposed international airport in Central Otago say results from a survey showing low levels of support for the plan have been misrepresented to government officials.

The information, and the scheduling of public drop-ins about the facility, have highlighted stark contrasts in views between Christchurch International Airport (CIAL) and some community groups.

The parties differ on both the merits of public engagement styles and levels of opposition to the proposal.

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The Tarras Airport dogfight

The first of three airport information sessions was held in Tarras on Tuesday with media asked not to attend.

Documents obtained through an Official Information Act request show Christchurch Airport’s chief strategy and stakeholder officer Michael Singleton informing Treasury officials in January that Sustainable Tarras’ survey, showing 84 percent of the Tarras community opposing the airport, was not correct.

Sustainable Tarras deputy chairperson Suze Keith, however, says the survey, which was designed and analysed by a professional statistician, accurately reflects local sentiment.

“CIAL has misinterpreted and misrepresented these findings to Treasury. This speaks volumes.”

Christchurch Airport told Treasury the correct percentage of the whole Tarras community who have a negative view of the project was more likely to be 33 percent. They believed a more accurate view was some residents having strongly positive or negative views and the majority either less interested or more moderate.

Early morning at Tarras village between Wanaka and Cromwell, just a stone’s throw from the site of a proposed international airport. Photo: Jill Herron

The company told officials that sentiment toward to the airport was more positive if nearby populations such as Cromwell were included although no research was presented to illustrate this.

The discussion took part as part of Christchurch Airport informing its 25 percent Crown shareholder on progress. The remaining 75 percent of the company is owned by Christchurch City Council.

Singleton denies discrediting Sustainable Tarras’ survey.

“We simply provided our perspective to a shareholder as part of our regular updates on how the response rate may have affected the results. Our response is as valid an interpretation to a limited piece of published data as the interpretation given by Sustainable Tarras.”

The airport company own 750ha of farmland at Tarras and plans to begin lodging consent applications for the facility and its 2.2km to 2.6km runway next year, if feasibility studies prove favourable.

Christchurch Airport’s style of community engagement, which does not include public meetings, has repeatedly been criticised by Sustainable Tarras and others.

Singleton however dismissed Sustainable Tarras’ concerns over engagement styles, telling Treasury officials they were something “this opposition group has sought to make mileage out of”.

Suze Keith says Sustainable Tarras – run by 10 members with 235 supporters – is now disillusioned about the way Christchurch Airport has gone about engaging with the general public and the group.

“They won’t meet with the very community which will be most affected, choosing instead to hold private meetings with carefully selected individuals, or invitation or ticket-only briefings with business groups to talk about the benefits of the airport.”

Singleton says Christchurch Airport was one of many organisations moving away from town hall-style meetings.

“Public meetings tend to be places where only the loudest voices get heard and few questions can be answered. Drop-ins enable more meaningful conversations to be held on topics relevant to that person and questions to be answered.”

Meanwhile a group representing nearly half the adult population of Wānaka undertook a survey two years ago regarding the Tarras proposal, finding 74 percent of 1200 respondents were opposed.

Mark Sinclair, deputy chair of the Wanaka Stakeholders Group, said the group’s 3500-plus members were being re-surveyed to ensure the group was still accurately reflecting their views.

Nearly all respondents had sought greater consultation in airport decisions and objected to airport companies determining the future of local infrastructure.

Similar concerns have been voiced by a 1260-member group called Stop Central Otago Airport.

Spokesperson Zella Downing said the group had asked Christchurch Airport for specific information about the proposal.

“Their approach has been to push back, provide little or no information and plenty of PR spin, and to refer us back to their website, which is largely filled with broad statements about why Central Otago needs a new airport – with no real substantiation or research to back it up.”

She claims Christchurch Airport had been careful to meet mainly with groups who would be likely to show some form of support, like seasonal fruit-growers, vineyards and business groups.

“But they don’t want to ‘face the music’ with the wider community.”

The proposed airport with lake Dunstan beyond. Image: Christchurch International Airport

Christchurch Airport sees the situation differently and says it is reaching many people and taking on board their concerns.

“We’ve attended many meetings at the request of community groups across the region and taken questions from the floor – that allows open discussion. In some cases, the meeting organisers have asked for questions in advance, but we’ve answered every one of these. People have been dealt with respectfully and treated fairly.”

Community division worrying residents

In a newly released draft community plan facilitated by the Central Otago District Council, the overwhelming theme regarding Tarras residents’ desires for their area was retention of a quiet rural environment and vibrant village.

Uncertainty and community division over the airport and possible mining development was cited as the thing residents most wanted to change.

Ten respondents cited Sustainable Tarras as something they wished to change.

Some respondents felt the group was dividing the community, that it needed to change the way it engaged with the community and to respect the views of others.

Suze Keith told Newsroom the group was “very open to doing better” regarding its own engagement.

Christchurch Airport announced on Tuesday its runway would follow the Lindis Valley-Lake Dunstan alignment. It was chosen above an alternative alignment for the wide-body jet-capable facility like the Hawea Valley and Lake Dunstan.

The company also released reports regarding air capacity needs, the environment around the site and analysis on the impact an airport could have on the land transport network.

In a media statement Singleton said demand for air connectivity to and from Central Otago was likely to far exceed the region’s current capacity over the next 30 years.

“Demand for travel to and from Central Otago will continue to grow even if air capacity is constrained. Doing nothing about air capacity constraints will simply cause congestion and inefficient travel patterns.

“If we do nothing, there could be between two and three people vying for every available seat to and from the region by 2050.”

Drop-in information sessions will be held from 2pm to 7pm on August 30 at the Cromwell Presbyterian Hall and from 2pm to 7pm on August 31 at Edgewater Resort in Wānaka.

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